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Monday, May 14, 2007

Reflections on Eternalism: Part 1

Eternalism is the thesis that all times are equally real; the past just as real as the present, and the future just as real as the past. If eternalism is true, does it make sense to look forward to future events? I think there are good arguments to show that it does not.

Assume that there is some future event e that I am looking forward to. What exactly am I looking forward to? Not e’s existence, for this is eternal, and so e “already” exists. If I am waiting for e’s existence, I need wait no more. Am I waiting for my being present at e? But if I am ever present at e, I am eternally present at e. Assume for the moment that perdurantism is true, so that, instead of being wholly present at each time they exist, objects persist by having successive temporal parts. In that case I cannot wait to be identical to a future temporal part of me, for if we take the view according to which it is my whole temporal extent which is properly said to be me, then I cannot identical to some proper temporal part of myself. The temporal part of me which is present at e is eternally a temporal part of me. On the other hand, if we take the view that each of my temporal parts constitutes a distinct, momentary self, I cannot look forward to being identical to my momentary future self which is present at e, for if the self which anticipates e is not identical to the self which is present at e, it never will be. And if it is identical to it, there is nothing to anticipate, for e is eternally present to that self. If we assume instead that endurantism is true, the problem is still not solved, at least so long as we still uphold eternalism. For if, e.g., I have the time indexed property of voting for the Democratic Presidential candidate on November 4th 2008, I eternally have the time indexed property of voting for the Democratic Presidential candidate on November 4th 2008. Once again, it seems there is nothing for me to anticipate.

If all events are eternally existent, it makes as much (and as little) sense to “look backward” to past events as it does to “look forward” to future ones. So if, e.g., I’m sitting in class and the class has been going for ten minutes, why do I not “posticipate” the beginning of the class, just as I anticipate the end of the class when there are only ten minutes left to go? After all, if eternalism is true, there is no such thing as “the passage of time” or the absolute termination of a process[1]. We never get “closer to” future events, at least not in any sense we don’t also get “closer to” past events. We can say that we “get closer” to future events in the sense that if A and B are two time slices of me, and B is later than A, then B is closer to a future event e than A is. The later a time slice of me is, the closer it is to e. But we can say with equal truth that if C and D are time slices of me, and C is earlier than D, then C is closer to a past event e’ than D is. The earlier a time slice of me is, the closer it is to e'. In some sense these notions count as “getting closer to an event”, because an object of zero temporal extent would, in the above senses, never get closer to anything. But since time does not pass, we never get closer to any event in an absolute sense. So it makes sense to anticipate the future if and only if it makes sense to posticipate the past. If it makes no sense to posticipate past events, as I think most would grant, we can conclude by a parity of reasoning that it also makes no sense to anticipate future ones.

So does it make sense to look forward to future events? If eternalism is true, I’m afraid it does not. Those who uphold common sense may take this as an indictment of eternalism. Those of us who uphold eternalism—who attempt to view things “under the form of eternity”, as Spinoza put it—can take it as confirmation of just how limited our everyday perspective on reality really is.

[1] A given entity may be temporally finite in the sense that it has temporal endpoints, but the entity itself—the segment which connects the endpoints—never ceases to be.


John Falicki said...

Jason: your argument here revolves around two phrases: "is identical to" and "is not identical to". Thus this entire blog hinges on the concept of Identity, and in the course of human thought we have managed to thickly interweave our concepts of Identity and Time, they are seemingly inextricable to us. That's the problem. If you presume a strictly linear Time, a concept of time modeled on our deeply, deeply engrained love of *narrative*, then you end up with a strictly linear notion of Identity, and that's what I take issue with. You are presuming throughout that Identity is something that is defined by or bound by CLOSURE, and I think that in general this shows that the human race is still in its cognitive infancy -- we can't imagine a stable Identity as anything but *closed*, and indeed our Gods are "Closed Beings", if we are to take the Bible and the Koran, say, seriously. People say that God is infinite or is Infinity itself, but that's just hand-waving, it's not very articulated, and Georg Cantor showed us that there are an infinity of infinities, but even still, Cantor's arguments and all subsequent developments in set theory and mathematics still center around our ideas of *enumeration*, but if we are going to talk about God, he or she better be far beyond ideas about enumerability. We need to re-examine from the ground up what we mean by that word, IDENTITY. I don't believe for one minute that a real God can be subject in any way to our puny, closed ideas about Identity. Addressing your argument about Eternalism, I want to say that at age 20, I could not even remotely have imagined the person I would end up being now at age 57! I say my life has been one long "pageant of Contingency", one surprising turn after another. Did my Identity at age 57 in 2007
"already exist" at age 20 in 1970? That's a gigantic question, isn't it? I say it didn't, except as certain personality tendencies I already had, what Karl Popper called "propensities" in the context of quantum mechanics. Yes, given my genetic inheritance and the circumstances of my childhood, I ended up with particular *idiomatic* propensities that would incline me towards quasi-
predictable choices in any given situation, yet even in some of those situations I might have been sick or pissed off and done the opposite of what I normally would have done. I don't think human Identity can ever be a Closed System, *whether in the immediate moment or across the entire span of a person's life* -- and that would apply a fortiori to a Deity.

Andrew Bailey said...
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Andrew Bailey said...

You say: "So does it make sense to look forward to future events? If eternalism is true, I’m afraid it does not."

This follows only given the conjunction of eternalism and the tenseless theory of time according to which there is no objective present moment. If there is such a moment (`the objective now') then there are features future events don't have (e.g. not happening yet)--and it could be in virtue of these features that we anticipate them. In short, given a tensed theory of time, future events may exist and still have interesting features which distinguish them from past and present events.

Your argument thus only has force against a block universe eternalism; a roving spotlight theorist needn't be moved.

Quirinius_Quine said...

Hi Andrew,

Point well taken--I guess I usually conflate eternalism and tenseless views of time in my own thinking.

I suppose roving spotlight views may be logically consistent, but wouldn't they conflict with the relativity of simultanaeity as evidenced by the theories of Relativity (on a realistic interpretation)?

Andrew Bailey said...

Most eternalists subscribe to the tenseless theory--so the conflation is natural.

As for roving spotlight and the special theory: it's no more inconsistent with the Special Theory, I'd think, then other tensed theories of time. Growing block, presentism, and roving spotlight are all equal grounds here. And they're all widely thought to be inconsistent with SR. But I think this is mistaken--and there's a growing cottage industry among presentists saying why... (see, e.g. Craig Bourne's 2006 book)